Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karbala Uprising Remembered

Former fighter recalls the brutally-suppressed rebellion against Saddam regime two decades ago.
By Khalil Malik Hassan Abu-Dhalam
  • Khalil Malik Hassan Abu-Dhalam: “I still wonder whether Iraq would be different today if the world had taken our side in 1991.” (Photo: Emad al-Sharaa)
    Khalil Malik Hassan Abu-Dhalam: “I still wonder whether Iraq would be different today if the world had taken our side in 1991.” (Photo: Emad al-Sharaa)

Recently, I have been following the demonstrations in the Middle East. Libya has drawn my attention because there are similarities between us in Iraq 20 years ago and the people of Libya today. They are fighting a dictator who has been in power for decades, just as we did.

But the Libyan people are luckier, because they are supported by the world and many Arab countries. Arab leaders didn’t stand with us then, and neither did the world. I still wonder whether Iraq would be different today if the world had taken our side in 1991.

A few months before the March 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, I was called to enlist in the military. I refused to join because I didn’t want to serve in the Baathist army. I had been raised to hate the Baath party. Every family in Karbala – the site of the Shia holy shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas - had lost at least one person they loved, either in their family or tribe.

My father was a practitioner of herbal medicine, and my family was well-known among patients in the area. My father was also a devout Shia and an active member of the community, attending religious ceremonies.

He was accused of being involved in religious activities and arrested in 1982. The authorities released him after a week, but he came home with stomach problems that killed him three years later. To this day, we believe that he was given some kind of poison while he was in custody.

I felt that the Baath party was responsible for the death of my father, in addition to many deaths in my tribe. I also witnessed how the regime imposed restrictions on Shia rituals from the early 1980s.

I vividly remember March 5, 1991, the day that we rose up against the most brutal regime that had ever ruled Iraq – and I was well-prepared.

For weeks, we had readied ourselves after hearing that the military might rebel against the regime following Iraq’s defeat in the Kuwait conflict. The uprising had already begun in Basra, and we were expecting it to come to our city at any minute.

The situation was boiling in Karbala. A couple of weeks before the uprising, some people had put human faeces on a giant poster of Saddam Hussein. The security situation was getting out of the Baathists’ control as members were either defecting or deserting.

At 2.30 in the afternoon of March 5, I left home with seven friends, all of us armed. I was carrying an AK-47. Every house had weapons; the challenge was hiding them from the security forces.

After we left, we met more than 20 armed people in the centre of the city. Other groups were meeting up elsewhere. Demonstrations calling for the fall of the regime had already begun.

As soon as we gathered, we started firing in the air and soon other groups followed. The uprising in our neighbourhood had officially started.

Our means of communication was by word-of-mouth with people we were meeting on the way. We heard from some that most of the Baathists were leaving town except in some strategic areas such as the al-Mualimin and al-Amel neighbourhoods, where Baath party offices were located.

Me and some fellow fighters went to al-Amel. After several hours of fierce fighting, we took control of the party centre.

Elsewhere, people took over all other Baath buildings and by the end of the day, for the first time in since the Baathists came to power in 1968, we were free.

It was the happiest day of my life.

When Karbala and other cities in the south were freed, we expected that Saddam would finally be toppled and Iraq would be liberated.

All of Saddam’s forces retreated from the city, and for about a week, the situation in Karbala was calm. People were happy and enjoying their newfound freedom. Soon after the city was liberated, people started organising local administration committees. For example, I along with many others provided security for residents at night.

But our happiness was short-lived.

On March 14, helicopters belonging to Saddam’s regime dropped hundreds of fliers urging residents to evacuate the city, warning they would “start bombing”. And that was exactly what happened over the next few days.

Helicopters and heavy artillery arbitrary targeted the city. Thousands and thousands of shells hit Karbala. The attacks continued for about a week. Believing that the regime would not target the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas, thousands of people took shelter there.

Then the Republican Guards (Saddam’s elite military squad) and the Mujahideen al-Khalq, the Iranian opposition that was backing the Baath regime, entered the city.

As the situation changed so did my duties. Now that the city was under attack, my job was to deliver RPG projectiles to fighters around the shrine of Imam Hussein. We resisted wave after wave of attacks. But after several days the strikes just got heavier and harder. We ran out of ammunition and retreated to the centre of the city.

I sought refuge at the Imam Hussein shrine along with 12 other fighters. Contrary to what we thought, the shrine soon came under heavy bombardment. I remember when a tank hit the door of the shrine. We were shocked. At that moment, I felt that it was over and that the army would either arrest everyone inside or kill them.

I escaped with the other fighters through a back door of the shrine. We all fled the city, each seeking shelter in different areas.
Two days later, I returned to the city because I felt like I had to come home. I saw dozens of bodies of men, women and children. I saw with my own eyes dogs eating corpses. Cars, tanks and other machinery were burning in the streets. Hundreds of houses were razed to the ground.

Before the uprising, as a religious duty I would wash bodies of the deceased (a traditional Islamic practice prior to a burial). So I started offering that service.

I went to our house and found that it had been destroyed, together with seven other homes. I discovered that my brothers, sisters and mother had fled to hide in the outskirts of Karbala, so I stayed with friends and on farms for some time.

Shortly after the uprising, the military began arbitrarily arresting hundreds of people, many of whom were never heard of again. Many were found in mass graves following the fall of the regime.

A month after the uprising, I learned from people who had been released from prison that I had received a death sentence for my participation in the rebellion.

At this point, I was reunited with my family and we started to move constantly. Between 1991 and 2003, we moved 70 times around Karbala. My family tried to persuade me to leave the city, but I refused because I felt that I could not leave the place where I grew up. I have friends who left back then and now live in Europe and America.

During those 12 years, I lived in fear that I would be arrested at any time. I survived by working in all kinds of manual labour jobs.

When Saddam’s regime fell, the dream that I had had 12 years before was finally realised. Saddam was gone, and he will never come back.

With thousands of others, I went to the shrine of Imam Hussein and did something that had been prohibited for years: openly practicing our rituals.

After the fall, I tried several times to get a job in the government sector, but I was rejected because I did not have a degree. For the past eight years, I have been working in an ice factory in the morning and in the afternoon I spend time in the street where we started the uprising.

On Thursdays, I volunteer to serve tea and cakes for pilgrims who visit the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas.

Iraqi has been through a lot since Saddam’s fall; security is unstable, services are not adequate and terrorists are still posing enormous threats. But if you ask my opinion, I think things are better now - just because we don’t have Saddam.

As told to IWPR staff reporter Emad al-Sharaa.

More IWPR's Global Voices